by Jim Wehner
“We have the solution to poverty!” This was the first thing out of the presenter’s mouth. I was participating in a conversation with a developer who is impacting their city. I loved their program. They were thinking holistically about jobs, economic impact, and investment. There is a lot that we at FCS could learn from them.
But I struggled with this first statement of our conversation. There were promotional videos, proving their work. Solid and sincere testimonies from those served and benefiting from their programs. Before and after pictures that revealed great progress. And data that backed up their effectiveness. Yet, there was something that didn’t fit. Something that left me uncomfortable. After the meeting, I heard the same discomfort from my FCS team members that were present.
To be honest, I was hoping for an clear partnership. Our initial phone conversations had been easy. The developer and FCS use very similar language to describe the types of help that struggling neighborhoods require. We found sincere alignment on our missions and core values.
It took me weeks of thinking through this conversation to realize that we had very different ideas of the problem that we were trying to solve.
We both use the term poverty, but our solutions are very different.
How We Define Poverty
At FCS, we think poverty is not simply an expression of a person's wealth. Poverty is an expression of relational need that everyone shares regardless of personal affluence. This is why neighboring, empowerment, and dignity are so important.
If our goal is to solve an economic equation, the solution to poverty is pretty simple. It is simply a matter of the right economic equation. And our developer friends may have solved it.
But if the solution has to do with how we, as human beings, relate with one another, then our work is different. Reciprocal, dignified exchange becomes important. Meaningful solutions that engage diverse voices become important. Give and Take. Discernment. Trust. I am simply skeptical of solutions that proclaim a quick fix. You do not build these types of solutions overnight.
Don’t get me wrong. FCS clearly believes alleviating poverty has economic components that require financial solutions. Dignified exchange often requires us to evaluate resources in an economic manner. But if our goal is to create a community of economically independent, middle-class individuals that do not need each other, we miss the point. I would go as far as to say I don’t think this is God’s vision for humanity. He did not intend for you and me to stand alone in our independence earned by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. That is not how His Kingdom works.
Living Into A New Way Of Thinking
A good friend of mine recently shared with me these words from Richard Rohr, "One of the most transformative experiences is entering into some form of lifestyle solidarity with the powerless, by moving outside of your own success system, whatever it is. Move around in the world of others who are not enamored with your world. This is a good way to feel powerless. We don't think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Lifestyle choices and changes finally convert people. I am not aware that merely believing a doctrine or dogma has ever converted anybody. "
I believe that God’s heart is aimed in a special way toward the poor. We do not have to search too deeply into the Scriptures to come up against this truth. In fact, I have been stunned over and over at the faith of those who have little in the way of worldly means. My faith has been made stronger by my interactions with those on the margins of society. They know how to trust God in a way that my well-resourced life has hidden from me. In seeking to help others, God has revealed a poverty within me that I was unaware existed. I was able to see and diagnose brokenness in the lives of others, but utterly incapable of diagnosing my own need.
I wish I could say I were more easily excited when someone says they have found the solution to poverty. I would love for FCS to be able to make this claim. But I can’t.
I think FCS would claim to be in process and constantly learning. More and more, I prefer to learn from those seeking answers through reciprocal relationships that encourage and expect dignified exchange as a means to building community.